Skip to main content

Did tech kill TV impartiality?

TV studio camera
By Ian Silvera
19 March 2024
Technology, Media & Telecomms
Digital and Insight

I’m partial to a bit of Michael Portillo, even a dash of Gyles Brandreth, and used to enjoy an occasional dose of Dianne Abbott. But, dear viewers, the end of the politician-turned TV star could be coming to an end.

The UK’s media watchdog has cracked down on GB News, the new show in town, for daring to air serving MPs reading the news. The fledgling outlet, whose hosts include Nigel Farage, Lee Anderson and Eamonn Holmes, has received an almighty slap on the wrist from OfCom for breaching impartiality rules.

The crux of the warning is that five separate programmes on GB News used serving politicians to “act as newsreaders, news interviewers or news reporters”. In doing so, ‘Britain’s News Channel’ mixed news with current affairs and could face a statutory sanction if it breaks the same rules again.

“Politicians have an inherently partial role in society and news content presented by them is likely to be viewed by audiences in light of that perceived bias,” OfCom noted. “In our view, the use of politicians to present the news risks undermining the integrity and credibility of regulated broadcast news.”

The ruling has prised open a can of worms with the label ‘modern media and impartiality’ on the side. GBNews has hit back, claiming that OfCom’s decision was “chilling” and its own stance on “impartiality” has changed. “It appears that Ofcom is trying to extend the regulations, rather than enforcing definitions which have been settled for many years,” the broadcaster argued.

Lord Ed Vaizey has also intervened in the debate. Speaking besides the red benches in the House of Lords, the Conservative peer called for a Parliamentary debate on the issue: “I made the point that due impartiality has worked well in an age when viewing was dominated by a few major broadcasters. But in an age of social media and streaming, do we need to look at it again? No one in the UK (I think) wants Fox News, but is there room for smaller challenger broadcasters to be given more freedom?

It’s a fair question. OfCom’s own surveys show that BBC One continues to be the most popular (49%) news source on British TV, but it’s showing signs of “gradual decline” across platform usage. Instead, digital apps like TikTok and Twitter are in the ascendancy.

Likewise, news UK’s TalkTV was recently taken off air by its management team and turned into a YouTube-only outlet. And most major publications have their own podcasts, blogs and websites.

The landscape has dramatically changed. Not just over the last decade, but over the past five years alone.

Then there is the definition of a politician. OfCom is sticking to a rather narrow explanation of the role, namely that they are a directly elected representative or figure in a political party. The truth is that political activists, of all stripes and colour, could be described as a ‘politician’ and sometimes they have more influence than anybody in the House of Commons.

But if they read the news, presumably this wouldn’t breach any impartiality rules? It feels like technology is outpacing regulation, once again.